Freakonomics Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6 and Epilogue


The final chapter of this book discusses whether or not the name parents give their child matters. Levitt gives an anecdote about a New York City man named Robert Lane gave his son the name "Winner," and then named his next son "Loser." Contrary to what his name suggests, Loser Lane succeeded in life, moving up in the New York City police department, where his colleagues called him Lou. Winner Lane, however, has been arrested nearly three dozen times.

He tells another story of a woman who accidentally named her daughter Temptress, meaning to name her Tempestt—the girl eventually went on to do things like bring numerous men into the house while her mother was at work. Levitt then presents the conundrum: does the name given to a child affect his life, or are the parents' lives reflected in his name?

Levitt reveals that all of the names previously discussed belonged to black children, and introduces Roland G. Fryer Jr., a young black economist at Harvard who specializes in the study of black underachievement. He wondered if the distinctive nature of black culture—including the names they give their children—caused the economic disparity between blacks and whites, or just reflected it.

In an examination of naming data from California, Fryer noticed that the drastic divergence between black names and white names only began in the 1970s. He points out that parents living in predominantly black communities who give their children traditionally white names may be penalized by neighbors for "acting white."

Levitt lists what were found to be the twenty "whitest" and "blackest" names for both girls and boys, and then talks about the different ways people perceive white vs. black names. In a fake study, identical resumes were sent out to employers with only the names different, and the "white" resumes always gleaned more job interviews.

The naming data from California ultimately revealed that a person with a distinctively black name does typically have a worse life outcome than a person with a distinctively white name, but only because they are usually born into very different circumstances. Those with distinctively black names typically come from low-income, low-education, single-parent backgrounds, and this is why they tend to stay in that cycle as they grow up themselves. Names are an indicator, rather than a cause, of a person's outcome.

The next section of the chapter asks where names come from and whether there is a pattern to the way they fall and rise in popularity. The California naming data answers these questions as well. When sorting baby names by socioeconomic status of the parents, there is a clear disparity between names given by middle-income, low-income, and high-income parents, with the same being true of high-education parents and low-education parents. Typically, names that are purposefully misspelled also signify a low-education parent.

More naming data also reveals a very quick turnover of naming popularity. Within twenty years, nearly every single name on the top name popularity lists provided changes. The data also reveals a pattern: names catch on among high-income, highly educated parents first, and then start working their way down the socioeconomic ladder. Levitt postulates that parents, whether they realize it or not, like the sound of names that sound "successful." He proposes what may be the new list of most popular names in the year 2015. He sums up the chapter by remarking that parents choose a name to signal something about the expectations for their child, even though the name likely will not end up making a difference.

In the book's epilogue, Levitt says that there is no one unifying theme to Freakonomics. Instead, there is a common thread having to do with thinking sensibly about how people behave in the real world. It calls for a novel way of looking at things, of being skeptical of conventional wisdom and looking for ways in which things are not quite what they seem. The most likely result of reading this book is finding yourself asking a lot of questions, like the ones that titled each of these chapters.

He ends the book by flashing back to the two boys discussed early in Chapter 5. The black boy, who grew up disadvantaged with a father who was an alcoholic, overcame the odds against him and became Roland G. Fryer, Jr., the Harvard economist. The white boy, who had an extremely privileged youth, also went to Harvard—however, this boy was Ted Kaczynski, who became the infamous Unabomber.


The final chapter of this book continues the idea discussed in Chapter 5: that it is not what parents do that influences their children's success, but the way that parents are. This was true of the parenting techniques talked about in the previous chapter, and it is true of baby naming as discussed here. This is another case of the difference between correlation versus causation. While certain names might be correlated with success, they do not necessarily cause this success. Instead, names are a reflection of the parental circumstances that the child was born into, which is a much larger predictor of success than a name.

Not for the first time, Levitt includes a sociological component to his analysis, showing how closely the field of sociology is related to economics. By presenting the work of Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Levitt is able to show how names are a reflection of the racial divide in our society. Traditionally black names are typically given by low-income, low-education parents, partly in fear of repercussions for "acting white." In part because of their names, these children are often not afforded the same opportunities to move up in society—as evidenced by the employers who will hire a white sounding name over a black sounding one when presented with identical resumes. This perpetuates the vicious cycle that creates the drastic black-white achievement gap across the United States.

In his analysis of naming trends and patterns, Levitt talks about how the name choices of the most high-income, high-education parents become increasingly obscure. An economic term that can be applied to this situation is the snob effect. The snob effect occurs when the demand for a certain good (in this case, baby names) among the high-income population is inversely proportional to its demand among the low-income population. This effect suggests that high-income, high-education parents may choose a more obscure name for its "snob value," in order to demonstrate social superiority the way one might buy an expensive sports car or work of art.

By the same mentality, demand for a name among high-income parents decreases when the relative scarcity of a name diminishes—in other words, the name becomes more popular. As high-income parents stop using this name for their children, it no longer becomes associated with success, and thus its marginal value decreases. Once this happens, overall demand for the name goes down, because the snob effect is no longer in play. All of this together explains the naming trends and patterns observed in the California naming data.

As Levitt acknowledges in the epilogue, after reading this book for the first time it may seem disconnected, with many unusual stories and explanations that are not linked together in any concrete way. However, Freakonomics is not meant to present one big takeaway; instead, like Levitt says, it is meant to encourage a novel way of thinking and observing and interpreting the world. Levitt has applied the various tools and concepts of economics to interesting real-world situations, ones that readers interact with every day. Yes, learning what this book has to teach is a great way to begin a study of economics, but it is also helpful for going out and engaging with the world on a day-to-day basis.